The weakness of the strongman
The silence of the lamb that President Duterte has become in the face of Chinese abuse of our hapless fishermen speaks loudly of the moral weakness at the core of his governance. Because brute force is the only logic he recognizes, he cowers in fear of the bully that is China because it is bigger and stronger.
A strongman used to bulldozing his way against those who dissent, he himself shuts his bad mouth when he is before a power he knows is just like him: a brash and brazen communist regime that brooks no opposition and lines you up against the wall to be shot when you stand in the way of its vision of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Some have wondered why Mr. Duterte is heedlessly careless in dealing with similarly strong powers like the United States and the Europeans — with blustering braggadocio, even threatening to go to war with Canada over garbage. Yet he utters not a whimper when our fishermen get shooed away from their centuries-old livelihood and intentionally left to drown within our own waters.
We do not know the exact nature of this mystery. One factor may be that, as in Africa, the Duterte leadership has been rendered pliable and weak-kneed by China’s usual way of buying favor by promising the ruling elite capital and trade inflows, not to mention the hefty billions they stand to get as commission from projects funded by Chinese loans that have been shown to be debt traps.
More deeply, it is due perhaps to the sheer lack of an ethical center. He prevaricates and musters all sorts of rationalizations to dismiss this incident as a “little maritime accident.” He raises the specter of war, and with a forked tongue defends his feckless response as in fact protecting us from a battle we cannot hope to win. This craven cowardice is a stark contrast to past presidents who stood undaunted before the browbeating threats of Chinese officials.
In the mid-’90s, when the Philippines discovered that China had built structures on Mischief Reef — ostensibly shelters for fishermen but now proven to be military installations — China’s top unofficial spokesperson for South China Sea affairs, Pan Shiying, was quoted as saying to US officials that if China’s offer of joint development was rebuffed, “it will have no choice but to take over the islands forcibly.”
Then President Fidel Ramos responded by engaging a Vaalco firm affiliate to explore oil in the Reed Bank, and threatened to invoke the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. He embarked on a $2-billion program to upgrade the armed forces.
Likewise, Benigno Aquino III, faced with unabated Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen despite negotiations, chose to explore as a recourse the legal remedies available within the Unclos. He marshaled the country’s deep bench of international law experts and took our case to the arbitration court in The Hague. To everyone’s surprise, the country stunningly won.
What is the main difference between these leaders and this current president who seems all too willing to sell our birthright?
It would seem that the former move within the larger orbit of a rule-based order, in a moral universe that believes against all odds that “right can be might.” The latter operates within the more primitive code of “might is right,” under the unsafe illusion that all can be made to bow under an iron hand that wields the carrot and the stick.
China may loom large as the new bully in the neighborhood, but the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration is sign that there is an evolving space where all, big and small nations, are being made subject to civilizational norms that have been achieved through centuries of struggle for what in modern times we call “sovereignty” and “rights.”
There is such a thing as a universal “commons,” a global moral consensus that prefers liberty to tyranny, hard civic duty to soft slavery. Hard pragmatists dismiss this kind of social ethic as unrealistic, especially at this time when a new form of autocratic barbarism holds sway in many countries.
Yet recent history shows that those who possess great moral force, even without coercive power, could topple despotic regimes. Mahatma Gandhi, that great soul of the Indian struggle for independence, never held office. Yet he galvanized his people by taking a moral high ground that unmasked the cultivated veneer of the British empire, revealing its savage underside in the massacre at Amritsar.
The movie “Quezon’s Game” reminds us that a truly great leadership is measured, not by how much power one wields, but by how well political will is directed toward the good of those who are rendered vulnerable by dire circumstance. Stymied by American refusal to aid Jews fleeing the shadow of Hitler’s pogrom, Manuel Quezon pushes the boundaries of colonial constraints and appeals directly to the people. Popular pressure forces the colonial officials to back down and let the refugees in.
Mr. Duterte now threatens to clap to jail anyone who would make a case that his policy of appeasement is treasonous and makes him impeachable. It is not likely that our valiant elders who have stood up to him — former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and Justice Antonio Carpio—will be cowed by such a threat.
Already, the Hong Kong people, mostly young, have shown us that the dragon that Mr. Duterte fears has a soft underpaw. Evil is not invincible or infinite; history is littered with iron-fisted despots who have come and gone. So will this one.
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Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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